Thursday, June 10, 2010

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A Writer’s Guide to Moonshine, Part 3

The second part of As Surely as Thunder Follows Lightning, a talk on the nature and origins of modern American home distilling. The first section is online here. Download a PDF of the entire talk here.

Even today, “secretive” remains the rule when it comes to unmarked liquor. But amateur distillers are far from isolated anymore. In less than a generation, they’ve learned to talk to each other, pool their knowledge, and ask ever-more nuanced questions about building and operating a range of stills.

Which all begs the question: Why? Why on Earth would you want to make your own spirits when decent liquor stores and online merchants can put the world’s liquors in your hands. And why now?

Part of it is this unshakable belief shared by almost all these clandestine distillers that making your own liquor is honest labor, as harmless as raising your own vegetables or curing your own meats. But that’s not new. That independent streak was part of what caused the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794.

No, what’s new tracks primarily back to three convergent trends;
  1. Itchy craft brewers
  2. The internet
  3. New Zealand
I said earlier that you could talk to some people somewhat openly about home-distilled spirits—If not very loudly and you don’t mind a cold shoulder. Those people were home beer brewers.

You see, beer is a gateway beverage. Yesterday’s homebrewers have evolved into today’s home distillers. Those with brewing backgrounds will continue to shape how we think of hobbyist distilling because brewers have mastered three key skills: 
  • how to talk to each other
  • how to organize, and 
  • how to drive legislation
It is virtually impossible to talk to craft beer brewers today who aren’t distilling on the sly, working on permits, or know someone who is.

See, this is why: Making beer at home has been going on for most of the 20th century, but it’s only been legal since 1978. For a decade or so after it was permitted, American homebrewers explored all kinds of beer and ale styles they couldn’t get at their local stores. They perfected their techniques, competed against each other in regional and national contests, published their recipes, gave out awards, and, later put that knowledge to use by opening brewpubs and microbreweries across the nation.

Homebrew supply shops were selling hops, malts, specialty grains, carboys, esoteric scientific equipment, and lab-cultured yeasts to tens of thousands of homebrewers trying, good-naturedly, to best each other’s beers. 

As surely as thunder follows lightning, whiskey follows beer—and in the eighties, you could smell whiskey in the air like an approaching storm.

By the nineties, brewers had become the novice distillers I mentioned—the folks with the questions about stills and how they operated. They were learning on pot stills because that had been the folk tradition for hundreds of years. And frankly, unless you knew about mashing and fermenting, a home distilling rig looked pretty much like a home brewing setup, so outsiders didn’t necessarily notice what was happening in their neighbors’ basements and garages.

These brewers-turned-distilling novices already knew about grains, malt, yeast, enzymes, ideal fermentation temperatures, filtration systems, and the water profiles that led to great-tasting beverages. The more curious and competitive among them began devising ways to remove what increasingly seemed like way too much water in their beer.

As I said, moonshining had long been a secret practice. Hell, I’ve gotten death threats from asking questions of the wrong people. But sharing, critiquing, and judging were an entrenched part of the brewers’ culture, and that carried over to home distilling. Homebrewers had developed widespread networks for sharing information; books, magazines, contests, clubs, festivals, newsletters, and rudimentary online newsgroups. Those anonymous online forums turned out to be ideal tools for vetting home distilling questions.

Unlike the old Appalachian moonshiners, newer distillers with homebrewing backgrounds were already used to talking to each other online and in person. If anything, they were—and remain—chatty.

Then, in 1996, New Zealand passed its Customs Act, allowing home distillation without excise taxes as long as the production was for personal use. Tiny little New Zealand on the other side of the world, about as far from Appalachia as you could get. There was an explosion of interest and innovation, specifically around design for home-sized stills that veered off from the old styles.

The Kiwis were looking into the physics of stills, attaching probes and meters to measure, exactly, what was going on when one fired up. They learned how tall and wide small stills should be. They affixed columns to their pots and filled them with ceramic and copper packing material for maximum efficiency. Those stills started looking less like the old copper pots and more like something out of an industrial refinery, churning out high-proof alcohol on single runs rather than the multi-stage process that traditional pot stills called for.

These distillers started comparing notes online. Americans brewers who were getting into distilling, with their already-established networks and culture of openness, noticed. They seized on a wealth of new verifiable information coming out of the southern hemisphere and added their own experiences, especially in online forums such as, yahoo distillers, and new distillers.

Since then, home column stills have evolved, becoming more compact and efficient, able to put out—well, not pure alcohol, but about as close as you can come outside a laboratory: very clean stuff.

In just the last ten years, a specific style of distilling has evolved that’s all about purity, efficiency, and making lots of neutral spirits in very compact column stills. Easily built and easily operated, they are more efficient and less work than pot stills. For better or worse, they are part of the future of American moonshining.

Expect to see more moonshine in the upcoming years if you keep your eyes and ears open. Especially whiskey. Expect to see more of it in rural communities and in cities and especially among distillers with no immediate family history of moonshining. Some of it will be bad (there will always be bad moonshine), but some will be very good because a new generation of distillers is talking among themselves and are genuinely eager to cast aside decades of derision to make outstanding spirits. 

They deserve our respect and support. 

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Anonymous said...

June 10, 2010 2:06 PM
Matthew Rowley said...

JB ~ Aw, you peeked! Stay tuned for the remainder of the talk. I'll post it later this week along with a PDF of the whole thing as one document. While there's nothing like hands-on experience at a still for learning the craft, the internet has changed the entire landscape of how aspiring distillers find information.

Na Matt,

I didn't peek. It was just a logical follow-on to your discussion. Great Job and keep up the good work!!!

Tis you who deserves the respect and support for publicizing and bringing focus to our cause...

Many Regards,
Yahoo Distiller and New Distiller Groups

PS> Stop by sometimes and join in some of our discussions. Love to hear from you.

Richard Jack (Kiwistiller) said...

A great article, Matt. I really enjoy your writing, and that's one of the best examples of it I've seen.

I find it interesting how you draw the lines between segments of home distillers. I think there is a lot more cross over between the technical and artisan

Take gin, for example, a spirit close to my heart. You have to have the technical aspect to get the best possible neutral base for your spirit with a reflux still, and then you need to go back to the artisan side of things, get out your pot still and the old mortar and pestle, and start grinding up your own blend of botanicals. The same could be said of absinthe, or any number of authentic liqueurs. In fact, I'd venture that a lot of those technical folks you speak of shun the commercial essences available in favour of crafting liqueurs from scratch.

It's interesting how people sometimes try to separate pot stillers from reflux stillers. The reality is (in my humble opinion) to be a complete distiller with complete creative freedom as a distiller, you need a full set of tools.

Anyway, thanks for the article, this technical-artisan distiller just wanted to say hi.


Matthew Rowley said...

Hey there, Richard ~

I'm so glad you said hi and I recognized immediately who you are. Thanks for the kind words (and my apologies about not getting back sooner: we've been in New Orleans for Mardi Gras and the internet connection has been horrible. Word is that the sheer number of photos, texts, videos, and tweets being sent on mobile devices overloaded the network: plausible, but who knows?).

As for distilling you're absolutely correct: the categories of home distillers I proposed are as much a heuristic device as anything, helping outsiders get their heads around a new idea of distilling that doesn't necessarily entail mountaineers and backwoods stills. Like all such devices, it's got its limits and the crossover between technical and artisan distillers is a natural one. How distillers think of themselves changes over time as well.

I had a great conversation last week with an oil rig engineer who began making vodka for himself (it's so cheap and easy), but aspires to open a small distillery to do the same on a larger scale and bring the best quality vodka he can make to his area. Artisan? Technical? Economic. Clearly, all three.

And I wholeheartedly agree: to be a complete distiller with complete creative freedom as a distiller, you need a full set of tools. Well put.

Now, I'm off to California and am seriously considering throwing away these Mardi Gras shoes. They're just nasty now...

Matthew Rowley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.